This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Napoleon Takes Command.
This story begins with a man newly made a general with his first command. France is broke; the southern army is starving. Italy lays before him.
This selection is from from Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by Sir Walter Scott published in 1839. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Sir Walter Scott was the famous Scottish poet, novelist, and history writer.
Place: Northern Italy
Napoleon has himself observed that no country in the world is more distinctly marked out by its natural boundaries than Italy. The Alps seem a barrier erected by nature herself, on which she has inscribed in gigantic characters “Here let ambition be staid.” Yet this tremendous circumvallation of mountains, as it could not prevent the ancient Romans from breaking out to desolate the world, so it has been in like manner found, ever since the days of Hannibal, unequal to protect Italy herself from invasion. The French nation, in the times of which we treat, spoke indeed of the Alps as a natural boundary, so far as to authorize them to claim all which lay on the western side of these mountains, as naturally pertaining to their dominions; but they never deigned to respect them as such when the question respected their invading, on their own part, the territories of other states which lay on or beyond the formidable frontier. They assumed the law of natural limits as an unchallengeable rule when it made in favor of France, but never allowed it to be quoted against her interest.
During the Revolutionary War, the general fortune of battle had varied from time to time in the neighborhood of these mighty boundaries. The King of Sardinia possessed almost all the fortresses which command the passes on these mountains, and had therefore been said to wear the keys of the Alps at his girdle. He had indeed lost his dukedom of Savoy, and the county of Nice, in the last campaign; but he still maintained in opposition to the French a very considerable army, and was supported by his powerful ally the Emperor of Austria, always vigilant regarding that rich and beautiful portion of his dominions which lies in the North of Italy. The frontiers of Piedmont were therefore covered by a strong Austro-Sardinian army, opposed to the French armies to which Napoleon had been just named commander-in-chief. A strong Neapolitan force was also to be added, so that in general numbers their opponents were much superior to the French; but a great part of this force was cooped up in garrisons which could not be abandoned.
It may be imagined with what delight the General, scarce aged twenty-six, advanced to an independent field of glory and conquest, confident in his own powers, and in the perfect knowledge of the country which he had acquired, when, by his scientific plans of the campaign, he had enabled General Dumorbion to drive the Austrians back, and obtain possession of the Col di Tenda, Saorgio, and the gorges of the higher Alps. Bonaparte’s achievements had hitherto been under the auspices of others. He made the dispositions before Toulon, but it was Dugommier who had the credit of taking the place. Dumorbion, as we have just said, obtained the merit of the advantages in Piedmont. Even in the civil turmoil of 13th Vendémiaire, his actual services had been overshaded by the official dignity of Barras, as commander-in-chief. But if he reaped honor in Italy the success would be exclusively his own; and that proud heart must have throbbed to meet danger upon such terms; that keen spirit have toiled to discover the means of success.
For victory, he relied chiefly upon a system of tactics hitherto unpractised in war, or at least upon any considerable or uniform scale. As war becomes a profession, and a subject of deep study, it is gradually discovered that the principles of tactics depend upon mathematical and arithmetical science; and that the commander will be victorious who can assemble the greatest number of forces upon the same point at the same moment, notwithstanding an inferiority of numbers to the enemy when the general force is computed on both sides.
No man ever possessed in a greater degree than Bonaparte the power of calculation and combination necessary for directing such decisive maneuvers. It constituted indeed his secret–as it was for some time called–and that secret consisted in an imagination fertile in expedients which would never have occurred to others; clearness and precision in forming his plans; a mode of directing with certainty the separate moving columns which were to execute them, by arranging so that each division should arrive on the destined position at the exact time when their service was necessary; and above all, in the knowledge which enabled such a master-spirit to choose the most fitting subordinate implements, to attach them to his person, and by explaining to them so much of his plan as it was necessary each should execute, to secure the exertion of their utmost ability in carrying it into effect.
Thus, not only were his maneuvers, however daring, executed with a precision which warlike operations had not attained before his time; but they were also performed with a celerity which gave them almost the effect of surprise. Napoleon was like lightning in the eyes of his enemies; and when repeated experience had taught them to expect this portentous rapidity of movement, it sometimes induced his opponents to wait in a dubious and hesitating posture for attacks, which, with less apprehension of their antagonist, they would have thought it more prudent to frustrate and to anticipate.